The Low View

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Confined in a 4-metre cube with nothing but my thoughts for company. Poor conversation and haunting memories by day, convoluted dreams by night. The dreams are too disturbing to contemplate long enough to unravel, so they leave varying degrees of disassociation in their wake. I kind of welcome that. Anything to relieve the monotony. After the first sets of 100 press-ups and sit-ups, I switch to jogging on the spot until my legs give way. Takes a while. I’m in the best physical condition of my life. My instructor would be proud, I think. She’d certainly be surprised. I was never one for excelling at anything. Doing just enough to get by without hassle was my way.
Explaining the reasons for that would take a while and requires insight I don’t possess: family problems, inadequate father figure, who knows?
Back to it. Every month or so I like to do this. Tell the walls my story. Keeps things from coming loose in my head.
Earth got attacked. Nothing major, but it took a lot to stop them. ‘Them’ being ‘Naxon’ – as close as we could get to their pronunciation. From the remains, we pieced together coordinates for their homeworld and reverse engineered their technology. When volunteers for the crazy plan to invade the Naxon homeworld came up short, they drafted a few ‘suitable candidates’ to do ‘non-essential roles’.
Having a qualification in plumbing along with a criminal record, I was deemed suitable for ‘flow maintenance’: bathroom cleaning. Clever PR like that meant ‘Defiance’, our massive spaceship, left Earth with a full complement of heroes and heroines.
By the time we reached Naxdoonif, I had become a trainee gunner/navigator on one of the Condor gunships – after fourteen months of cleaning toilets, it was the only escape option. With eighteen months of simulator training, I strapped myself into the seat, ready for our first raid against the Naxon.
I can’t say whether we were outgunned, ambushed, or just hopeless. All I remember is a period of yelling and screaming while shooting at planes that seemed to be able turn on the spot while doing several hundred kph. Someone shouted about ‘teleport orientation’. I still can’t figure that out.
What I did understand was the second sun that grew in the sky when the ‘Defiance’ blew up. Our home, our support, and the only way back, was gone.
Some surrendered immediately, some fought until downed, some flew into enemy machines or installations. I was up for surrendering: a minority vote. When our Condor got shot down and crashed through a forest, I was thrown clear as it rolled into a lake.
Since capture, I’ve been here. No interrogation, nothing. Just two meals a day, unlimited water, a toilet that auto-flushes at sundown, and a new bar of soap each week. The guards who bring the food aren’t Naxon. These guys have rocks for heads and tentacles for fingers. Over the last few years, I’ve found out they’re from a slave planet, just like Earth has become.
I’m never going home. The guards reckon I’ll be transferred to the Human exhibit at some huge museum-cum-zoo, whenever the Naxon finish building the enclosure. They have small groups of every race they’ve conquered on display. It’s an educational thing.
The possibilities of that are the stuff of my daydreams: meeting a pretty woman, making the best of our exile, and all the usual ‘last hero’ fantasies. Deep down, I know I’m going to end up on my own, cleaning toilets. But, until that happens, I’ll let the daydreams make me smile.

Paper Moon

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The walls are sweating as I labour up the stairs. Intravenous packs are heavy and I have to buy in bulk, otherwise I couldn’t afford enough of them. The door opens to my retina print and I barge in, pushing the door closed with my arse.
Colin’s left me a fresh sterile pack with needles – he must have got his overtime. Shame he doesn’t care enough to stay realside and celebrate. Virtual sex may be athletic, but it’s just not squishy enough.
Drink a half-litre of sugar water and strip. Into the recliner, sort the wires and tubes, sliding the needles into my arms. New steel feels strange, for all that I know there’s no real difference. At least he hung full bags for me. I don the headset but leave the gloves. Reaching into the left one, I press the ‘engage’ toggle. As the wires slide into my brain, my hands clench and arms shake. Medsites say that’s a symptom of nerve damage, but it’s irrelevant. Not like I can afford to have it treated, let alone fixed.
With jitters out of the way, I lie back, slip the interface gloves on, and press the ‘dive’ toggle. The darkness goes grey, then I’m standing on a moonlit balcony, overlooking a beach. The sun is setting and Colin is leaning on the rail next to me.
“Got out early?” He grins. Perfect features move smoothly, no trace of psoriasis. He is an Adonis of his own making. I look at my zebra-striped short fur and smile. Who am I to pick at someone’s affectations?
“Yes. There was a bomb scare, so they sent us all home. Starting an hour early on Monday.”
“Nothing’s free these days.”
I suspect that’s always been true. The cost has simply increased to a point where that truth is unavoidable. Extended childish logic: if I don’t realise it, it’s not happening.
I shrug: “What scenario are we doing?”
“Falmeddar. A noble quest against the Ravening Keep. Going in with Solange, Andre, Tierney, and Klimdt.”
Colin’s happy. He idolises Andre and has a virtual thing with Solange: hours spent in a two-person private domain. I would mind, but occasionally those ‘late shifts’ give Tierney time to visit and get squishy with me, when he’s in town.
“Let’s go.”
He nods and vanishes. I remember when he’d hold out his hand so we’d get the buzz from the signal bleed as we switched domains.
There’s a grey flash and I’m standing in an autumnal clearing with the five of them. Colin’s next to Solange. Andre and Klimdt are checking their gear. Tierney’s watching Colin with a little smile. As I go from 2D to 3D, he turns to me and winks. At that moment, a patrol from the Ravening Keep burst into the clearing.
“Ambush!”
Why not state the bloody obvious, Colin?
Before I can raise an energy barrier, a spearhead emerges from my chest and things go grey.
I’m still on the recliner when a message from Colin arrives: “Bad luck, Layla. See you tomorrow eve. I’ll tell you all about it.”
He’s going straight from scenario to a ‘late shift’? Tosser.
Another message, this one from Tierney: “Took ages to set up that ambush. I got a transfer. Come live with me, if you want to.”
I so want-
The door opens. Glad I aliased him onto the access list. I shed needles and gloves, am in his arms before the door finishes closing.
“Good to go.”
“Wearing nothing but a headset. The taxi driver will stare.”
“Don’t care.”

The Eyes That Never Sleep

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I open my eyes to behold a slit of blue between tenements that descend from lofty, sunlit heights to the sordid mess of which I am a larger part. Lining that strip of clear sky are the blurry, baroque patterns made by fire escapes and drying racks set against the cerulean heavens.
Lowering my sight, I find aged brickwork well on its way to possessing the rugose anonymity of weathered rock due to a thick layer of ordure. In places that glistens like oils left to dry by a demented painter.
I have but one boot remaining. The sock on the other foot bears more resemblance to what covers the walls than any garment. My trews are ragged, likely ruined. I am shirtless under my heavy coat, and am lying on a soiled mattress.
Have I an appointment? Am I late? Something disturbed-
My testicles are wet.
Pressing my chin to my chest, I see a bottle resting against my crotch, angled in a way that incriminates my left hand for dereliction of gripping duties.
Righting the bottle, I narrow my eyes, then resort to digital means as the effort required to focus is beyond me. My headware queries the bottle and its RFID returns: ‘Freefall: premium vodka triple distilled in low-earth orbit’.
Unfinished vodka, and the sun is on the rise. So yesterday was Tuesday. Maybe. Today is probably Wednesday, or I missed brandy day and today is Thursday: tequila day. Making head or tails of that conundrum can wait. I drink the bottle dry, then consider taking my trousers off to suck the spilled liquor from them. That would require a cessation of being prone – isn’t worth that sort of effort.
Letting my head fall back, I watch birds wheel across the blue slot above, trying to guess where they’ll pop into view. Sure enough, idling and booze slip me back into stupor.

I dream of a furtive man in shabby clothes running the calluses of his thumb across the edge of his blade, taking comfort from the feel of whetted steel. He’s creeping down a debris-strewn alley, everything about or on him suppressed so as not to give warning. It’s foolish, trying to get past the eyes that never sleep, but the rewards are so big he cannot do anything but try.

My knee cracks bone when it slams into his head, held in place by my left hand, grip anchored by thumb in eye socket. Right hand smashes the empty bottle. Pain starts to make him recoil; jagged glass opens his throat. I release his head with a push and twist. That turns him away before he drops next to me. His last breath gurgles and stops. From the roof above it would look like we’re drunks sharing a discarded mattress.
I’m awake.
“Good morning, Frank.”
My ‘eyes that never sleep’ have been waiting.
“Hello, SAL. How long did I manage this time?”
“Nine days. A new record.”
“Thanks for letting me pretend for a while.”
“I don’t mind. Your drunken dreams are fascinating and some of your ramblings are quite insightful. I’ve contacted the outfitters. Clothes and grooming accessories will be here within the hour. Coffee and pierogi will arrive sooner.”
“Thanks, SAL. Next contract?”
“Mars. Somebody’s insisting they’ve been dumped there against their will.”
“We’re to silence them?”
“No, we’re to bring them home alive.”
“Nice. We can pretend to be a good Samaritan.”
“I thought you’d like it.”
I sit up and settle. It’s so quiet here.
“Frank?”
“Uh?”
“We should move nearer to the entrance of the alley.”
“Ah. Yes.”

Thud, Bang

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Is all I hear.
On a world where everything uses parts of the visual spectrum humans don’t, we’d have been better off staying away. Far from its star, the eternally-twilit forests of Modbiaent XIV are protected by interstellar law and, more effectively, by orbiting weapons platforms. Naturally, this isn’t entirely about conserving the environment. Modbiaent XIV has stocks of a rare element, dubbed Biaeum, that has many possible uses. It’s been found on a couple of asteroids, but the quantities here are far greater.
Light in a spectrum that allows humans to see actually causes some indigenous life forms to break down. Labelled ‘photonecrosis’ by the media, it means that humans visiting this world should adjust themselves, rather than seeking to adjust the environment. Drysuits mated to space helmets using visual technology borrowed from the military is the current vogue.
“Tassy! What was that?” James sounds scared.
I made contact with him a while ago – not that we know where we are in relation to each other. From the delay, he must be further from the site than me.
“A Wubdern collapsing the habitat by landing on it.”
“How do you know?”
“Best guess.”
It’s also the best likely cause on this eerily quiet world. For months, we thought the silence was due to the nature of the environment. A silly assumption. There’s a more obvious answer: something dangerous is always listening.
Chas Wubdern was collecting samples using a hammer and chisel. The percussive noise attracted the thing that killed him. In his memory, we named them Wudberns. They look like a Pteranodon crossed with a Komodo Dragon with claws on wing joints, wing tips, and feet. We measured their bite strength at over 75kN.
Making the best of the loss, we set out to document Wudberns. To do that properly, we reasoned, we needed more than one example. Taking a cue from shark fishing, we ‘chummed’ the area using loud music, a breathtakingly stupid decision. Suddenly, we had half a dozen territorial predators prowling about and fighting. The battle between the biggest one and its closest rival crushed our engine module. The noise that made caused them to pound it even flatter during a scavenging frenzy.
With engineering gone, it became a race. Could the supply ship reach us before the habitat failed?
We hadn’t allowed for the Wudbern being curious creatures with rudimentary tool use, just like the Ratel. We were the ‘sweeties in the puzzle box’, as Rosie put it. It didn’t take them long to figure out that tools were only needed to pick over the wreckage: the habitat modules are quite flimsy if you land a 500-kilo predator on them hard and often.
I’ve been out here for two days. Switched every possible thing toward keeping me alive, vision system included. James is worse off: one leg broken. Then again, crawling away probably saved him. The Wudberns didn’t hear. That’s certainly what saved me. Donald ran off. While they chased and tore him apart, I tip-toed out into the wilds.
I haven’t told James that the ship’s been kept from orbit by the weapons platforms. Someone forgot to arrange clearance. Obtaining permission will take two days longer than my life support can last.
Unless I can find James and…
Something large lands in front of me. Something heavier falls nearby. Vision on!
There’s a boulder at my feet and James is sprawled in an untidy heap by a rocky outcrop. Good effort, especially with that injury. I hope he’s dead. If not, I have a pipe wrench. James missed. I won’t.

It’s Not Like They’ll Miss It

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The last words my Pa said to me were: “Down where the rocks run free, and the colours run like blood.”
Not the traditional deathbed wisdom for the young buck, but certainly something to stay with one. After seventeen years of prospecting, I still think about it. When Kristin and I transitioned from lust to romance, I knew I’d share the words eventually. That time is tonight, in one of those quiet interludes before dropping off to sleep.
She sits up and replies: “Melting in magma.”
That makes me sit up.
Dondas Kieller, my Pa, had been a crystal hunter, a seeker of the impossible gemstones that can be found in the rubble that drifts through space. His business partner for twenty years, Alois Johnston, had quit barely six months before Dondas found the motherlode.
Not that there was any mining involved. He found an ancient spaceship tethered within an isolated asteroid. How long it had been there was a question with a staggering answer: it had been abandoned before humanity first ventured into space.
The discovery caused a sensation. Johnsten’s attempts to claim some of the bounty likewise. Then the second expedition translated the alien language on the walls and discovered the reason why the ship had been hidden: it was a doomsday device, a planet destroyer, concealed out here in case of dire need, along with all the secrets of its creation.
Secrets that our militaries wanted. Secrets that were missing: data platters and focussing arrays, both made of artificial gemstone, had been recently removed. The military came after Pa, but he didn’t budge. Claimed he’d never explored that far into the vessel. Alois accused him of stealing for profit, but burying after the translations were made public. The media attention didn’t help defuse the situation.
At the height of the outcry, Pa made up with Ma and brought us here, the family lodge on Big Island. It was here that Alois and three like-minded ‘friends’ came visiting one evening a few weeks later. I heard them arrive, then Ma took me with her to overnight with friends.
What happened that night has several versions. The accepted one is that after an argument, Alois departed with his friends. Angry and probably drunk, he lost control of his hired flyer and plunged into the sea. The flyer was recovered, the bodies weren’t.
All Pa told me was that: “Alois knows where the alien gems are.”
I pestered him for months. It came a bit of a thing between us. I’d ask in a variety of ways, he’d always give the same reply. But, as time passed, I got bored with it. I’d still toss the question occasionally, because it made him smile, but the fun was gone.
Until tonight.
At the end of our property, about two kilometres away, is a big lava flow. Kristin’s interpretation has me putting Pa’s last words together with his stock reply.
I whisper: “Alois knows where the alien gems are: down where the rocks run free, and the colours run like blood.”
Looking at her, I smile: “He destroyed the information and core components of the weapon.”
She tilts her head, not understanding.
I look up at the ceiling, eyes watering: “On his deathbed, he confessed to it. By inference, quite likely four murders as well.”
Kristin looks puzzled: “Tell me the story.”
I do.
She sits for a few minutes after I finish, then points at the half-bottle of wine on the table.
“We should drink a toast to him. Then never mention this again.”
I fetch the bottle and two glasses.